Colleen McElroy

(b. 1935)

Show Summary Details

Quick Reference

(b. 1935), poet, college professor, short story writer, and speech therapist.

Although Colleen McElroy did not start composing poetry until she was in her mid-thirties, she is a prolific writer: she has completed nine books of poetry (of which Queen of the Ebony Islands, 1984, and What Madness Brought Me Here: New and Selected Poems, 1968–1988, 1990, are probably the best known), two collections of short stories (Jesus and Fat Tuesday, 1987, and Driving under the Cardboard Pines, 1991), two plays, and three works of nonfiction, in addition to working on a novel. While heralded chiefly as a poet, McElroy's short stories have appeared in several anthologies including Gloria Naylor's Children of the Night: The Best Short Stories by Black Writers, 1967 to the Present (1996), Craig Lesley's Dreamers and Desperadoes: Contemporary Short Fiction of the American West (1993), and Terry McMillan's Breaking Ice: An Anthology of Contemporary African American Fiction (1990). In 1997, McElroy published A Long Way from St. Louie: Travel Memoirs; and in 1999, Over the Lip of the World: Among the Storytellers of Madagascar.

Born Colleen Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri, she received both her BS (1958) and her MS (1963) from Kansas State University, and completed her PhD in 1973 at the University of Washington in Seattle, where she is a professor of English. She married David F. McElroy in 1968 and they had two children, Kevin and Vanessa, before divorcing. The daughter of an army officer, McElroy had to move often with her family when she was young; and being a child who spent a lot of time by herself, she began telling stories to make friends. Her poems are imbued with this storytelling quality—she has a keen sense of the cadence and lyricism of words, and the dialogue in her short fiction has been highly praised.

McElroy's poetry is varied and diverse. She often draws on the mundane—the cracked sidewalk of girlhood (“as veined as the backs of my Grandma's hands”), the runners outside a window loping past like wild deer in season, the flashing lights of an always illuminated and overly watched TV—to address more profound concerns: the lost sensual and hermetic world of childhood, the injustice of a social system prejudiced against black Americans, the loneliness of growing older. Alongside the mundane comes the sudden and the unexpected, the storyteller's twist that makes her poetry both brutal and beautiful.

The world inhabited by McElroy's fictional characters is one that defies easy categorization, one where the effects of racism are portrayed subtly, and one where sensuality and good humor reign (in the first lines of “The Dragon Lady Considers Dinner,” the narrator cannot remember her date's name of the previous evening, but she has not forgotten the food: “there was that business with the flaming crepes”). Although McElroy is not as well known as other contemporary black women poets (indeed, she has been described by one critic as neglected), and her poetry has not received much scholarly attention, she has been the recipient of many honors, including two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, a Fulbright Creative Writing Fellowship, and a Rockefeller Fellowship.


Subjects: Literature.

Reference entries

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. Please, subscribe or login to access all content.